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  • Ireland The struggle for Power by Jeffrey James

    The quest for Catholic emancipation during the reign of James II resulted in Ireland becoming a proxy battleground between competing European powers, the legacy of which has blighted modern times. Two Irelands evolved: an impoverished Gaeldom and a more prosperous class which lived well on incomes gleaned from confiscated land. It was an uncompromising system which between the years 1728 and 1845 produced almost thirty artificial famines.

    SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA The Wolfe Tone Statue at Bantry

    The outbreak of war in the American colonies provided Irish patriots with an ideological platform for protest. Revolutionary upheavals there and on the Continent were ushering in a new age of Republicanism, a system at odds with the British model of liberal, constitutional monarchy. In 1798, rebellion flared in Ireland. With French assistance, United Irishmen sought to overthrow British rule and declare Ireland a republic. The man most closely identified with them, Theodore Wolfe Tone, was descended from a Cromwellian planter. An avant-garde Presbyterian, Wolfe-Tone brought together dissident Protestants and Catholics under a common banner, asserting the ‘rights of man’, separatism from Britain, and Catholic emancipation. The rising failed and in tragic circumstances Wolfe Tone lost his life.

    Not all emerging rebel groups nurtured Republican agendas. The aims of some were economic and protectionist. These were bands like the Whiteboys and Defenders; loose Catholic factions who targeted debt-collectors and landlords and who were opposed not just by the state but also by rival Protestant gangs like the Peep O’ Day boys and the Orange boys. The latter erected notices warning Catholics that unless they left Armagh – then Ireland’s most populated county – they would have their souls blown ‘to the low hills of Hell’. This was a politically loaded reference to abuses suffered by Ireland’s Catholics in Cromwellian times. The root of such violent rhetoric was competition for land and Catholic penetration of the linen industry at a time when mechanisation was putting downward pressure on wages. The 1790s was perhaps the decade in Ireland when ‘troubles’ first draped themselves in a discernibly modern form.

    Ireland The struggle for Power 3 Whiteboy memorial co Cork The memorial stones at Keimaneigh, laid in 1999 (Ireland The Struggle for Power, Amberley Publishing)

    My new book Ireland the struggle for power tracks through time from Dark-Age Ireland to the Jacobite wars, then on to the emergence of groups like the United Irishmen, Whiteboys and Orange Boys. There are warring high-kings, soldiers of Christ, Vikings, Cambro-Normans adventurers, Anglo-Irish lords, marauding Scots and land-hungry English and Scottish colonists. Under Angevin kings, Dublin and its environs became the western outpost of Empire, but by the turn of the fourteenth-century, military defeats at the hands of a resurgent Gaeldom turned the city’s hinterland into a simmering war-zone. Even more challenging for the occupying English was a Scottish invasion after the Battle of Bannockburn. From Ulster, Edward Bruce’s Scots and a contingent of Irish bravehearts formed a second front against the English, leaving Ireland’s economy in ruins and the legitimacy of English rule in tatters.

    Home rule for Ireland may first have been mooted during the Wars of the Roses in the mid fifteenth-century – the result perhaps of a weakened English state under Henry VI and later Yorkist opportunism. A distrusted Ireland then groaned under the weight and scrutiny of Henry VIII. His daughters continued his containment policies. The first of several new towns outside the Pale, at places like Philipstown (now Daingean) and Maryborough (now Port Laoise), were settled by what the Irish called planters. Territories in modern-day Counties Offaly and Laois were split up and re-named the King’s and Queen’s Counties, after Philip of Spain and Mary of England. These powerful, married monarchs were keen to see Ireland become a more vibrant and integrated part of their joint Catholic domain. Colonising the north, however, proved a more problematic proposition. Northerner Shane O’Neill was described by Elizabeth I as ‘our most cankrid rebel’. Military disasters in the mid seventeenth-century culminated in the infamous Cromwellian settlement, military occupation and the twin horrors for Catholics of ‘Hell or Connaught’ – the catalyst for future violence.

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    Jeffrey James' new book Ireland The struggle for Power: From the Dark Ages to the Jacobites is available for purchase now.

  • 50 Gems of Cumbria by Beth & Steve Pipe

    50 Gems of Cumbria 1 Bishop of Barf. The two bright white rocks are just about impossible to miss among the deep green hillside of Barf. (50 Gems of Cumbria, Amberley Publishing)

    I’m pretty sure that when I tell most people that Steve and I write books, they envisage us wafting around the countryside on lovely sunny days before returning to our mansion to scratch out a few words before dinner.  Well, it’s not really like that – and this book was particularly not like that.

    First of all we had to agree which 50 Gems we were going to include.  Now, we both passionately love Cumbria and its many hidden away corners so this in itself was no mean feat.  Lists were drawn up, argued over, re drawn up, researched, drawn up again and then finally agreed on.  We know we’ll never keep everyone happy with the 50 we’ve chosen because we know there are so many others we could also have included – perhaps the next book could be “50 More Gems of Cumbria – the ones we couldn’t quite agree on”

    We then set about the task of revisiting them all several times to get the right photos, researching and double checking all of our facts and deciding how best to organise them in the book.  Some gems were easy to research whereas others were more problematic. Take the Bishop of Barf for example; I spent days sending dozens of emails and making lots of bizarre phone calls trying to establish who currently paints it.  It’s a huge white rock half way up an inaccessible hillside which is resplendently white – someone, somewhere, knows who paints it but no-one is letting on.  On the bright side my enquiries did enable me to prove Wikipedia wrong and that always makes me happy.

     

     

    50 Gems of Cumbria 2 Grasmere from Loughrigg Terrace. (50 Gems of Cumbria, Amberley Publishing)

    On top of all that research we were hampered with a run of bad luck on the health front – during the course of the year I had two bad falls resulting in two nights in hospital, two concussions (one of them severe), two broken bones, a two inch cut on my head and a few resulting problems with my short term memory.  Not to be outdone Steve damaged his right knee and spent 6 months of the year on crutches.  One of the finest sights to be seen in the county occurred on a crisp and frosty November morning – Steve headed up to Loughrigg Terrace on crutches while I slithered my way around the lake and into to the village with one arm still in a sling. (The result being the rather lovely photo to the right, which is at the top of page 48 in the book)

    Hopefully we’ve included some of your favourites as well as inspired you to seek out corners you perhaps haven’t previously explored. For us the book represents 50 of our favourite places to visit and, as I flick through it, I remember all the fun and adventures we had putting it together.  Writing books may not be as idyllic as many people imagine – but it is a lot of fun, and an absolute privilege to live in and explore this breathtaking county.

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    Beth & Steve Pipe's new book 50 Gems of Cumbria is available for purchase now.

  • Her Finest Hour: The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden by Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell

    Many people have asked me what prompted me as a New Zealander living many thousands of miles from the UK to write this book – a book about a lone English woman, an agent and courier for the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

    The story of how I began to write this biography began around the year 2004 when a friend of my mother’s, Don Miles who had himself been a member of SOE, asked me if I had heard of a woman agent named Diana Rowden. Did I know what had happened to her and why was there so little written about her? We discussed this, and I had to admit, even though I was a war historian and familiar with the SOE I could not enlighten him on Diana. Eventually I started to research her, finding her name mentioned on the odd occasion in books about women agents of SOE.

    Her Finest Hour 2 Diana in uniform. (Courtesy of Paul McCue - Her Finest Hour, Amberley Publishing)

    And then, out of the blue I remembered a documentary I had seen on television one night during the 1980s. Images … women dressed in the style and fashion of the 1940s … their heads bowed to the ground, two with dark hair, another with died blond hair, and a fair women, a ribbon in her hair, walking down some steps, a guard tower, Germans with rifles, a door leading into a building like a crematorium … the camera walking them back up the stairs and then down again, a woman with grey hair speaking English slowly, deliberately, surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke. Was this documentary something to do with Diana Rowden … had she been one of these women?

    The months passed and I continued my research into Diana’s life. She had worked in the Jura region of France, a particularly dangerous area as the Germans knew agents were in the zone, and with the Allies on the offensive that the end of the war was in sight. The Jura was an area riddled with Nazis double and even triple agents, spies in the pay of the German Gestapo, thieves and murderers – people only too happy to throw in their lot with the occupying forces. And then her disastrous arrest with her radio operator, John Young. Through no fault of her own Diana was arrested by a double agent and in the company of three other women agents was executed in a camp called Natzweiler in the Vosges Mountains.

    Natzweiler … the memory now makes me shiver. I will come back to this.

    Over a period of time two books were recommended to me – ‘Death Be Not Proud’ by Elisabeth Nicholas and ‘Flames in the Field’ by Rita Kramer. They were of immense help and made me even more determined to write Diana’ full biography. An idea began to grow – I would go to Alsace and visit the camp where Diana had died.

    Her Finest Hour 3 Natzweiler entrance. (Author’s collection - Her Finest Hour, Amberley Publishing)

    In 2005 in the company of my sister we made the long journey from Auckland to Alsace. It was a grey day when we visited. The first thing we noticed was the absence of birds and other wild life, just an eerie and deathly silence which hung over the deserted camp.  A huge white monument to the fallen stood near the entrance, while steps led down to the buildings used to house the prisoners far below. Everything was as it had been: the crematorium, the prisoners’ cells, the guard houses. A lone shoe lay at the entrance to the crematorium, old and shabby as if somebody had carelessly thrown it to one side. The oven was so small I wondered how a human body was able to fit in to its narrow cavity. I walked outside into the fresh alpine air and read the inscription on the plaque dedicated to the four SOE women agents.

    Natzweiler was a camp of hell; a men’s camp. The men were beaten by guards, starved and forced to work in a quarry all day regardless of their health. Most were suffering from disease, malnutrition and many collapsed and died on the spot. Some of the prisoners were classified Nacht und Nebel – those deemed to disappear into the night and fog.

    This was the environment which the four young women found themselves in July 1944 after being arrested and interned in France. But it was Diana’s story which kept me awake at night. I came away from my trip to Alsace with one thought only … I knew very clearly what I wanted to do and nothing would defer me from the task: I would write Diana’s story and tell the world what she had done.  Never again would she be the unknown agent.

    9781445661643

    Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell's new book Her Finest Hour: The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden, Wartime Secret Agent is available for purchase now

  • Hanwell and Southall Through Time by Paul Howard Lang

    Hanwell & Southall Through Time Manor House, Southall The war memorial was unveiled in 1922 and stands proudly near the Manor House. Hanwell has no similar war memorial but there is a small memorial in Churchfields Park commemorating the scouts who died in the First World War. (c. Hanwell and Southall Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    My job from 1982 until my retirement in 2014 was Hospital Librarian at St Bernard’s Hospital where I had dealt with many enquiries concerning the history of this establishment and had built up a store of knowledge in regard to this subject. I also collect postcards relating not only to the hospital but also to other buildings and scenes around the area. St Bernard’s is a large psychiatric hospital in West London, and although technically situated in Southall, it is only just over the border (the Brent River being the boundary) thus it is sited nearer to Hanwell than to the town centre of Southall.

    The former asylum, known as the Middlesex County Asylum dates back to 1831, so a relatively early asylum. It was designed by the architect William Anderson and built by William Cubitt. The Rev. Norris, the hospital chaplain, started to write a history of the asylum, but sadly died before it was published, and only his notes remain. Therefore I felt compelled to try and put this right, and include some historical facts about the asylum in my book.

    Hanwell & Southall Through Time Farm House, Dormers Wells The drive leading to Dormers Wells Farm can be seen in this Edwardian view. The farm consisted of the farm buildings themselves, Dormers Wells House and Dormers Wells Cottage. (c. Hanwell and Southall Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    I further felt that there were many buildings of interest in Hanwell and Southall that should be better known, for example the Manor House in Southall, which dates back to the 16th century. I have given talks to various historical societies on the history of St Bernard’s and other aspects of Ealing’s history. My talk on ‘Ealing’s Private Asylums’ led me to research the Southall Park Asylum and also Featherstone Hall. Another talk I gave was on ‘The Great Fires of Ealing’ and this inspired me to research the 1914 fire at Endacott’s store in King Street, Southall. I have also detailed the fire at Southall Park Asylum in the book.

    I thought Dormers Wells, originally known as Dormoteswell, was possibly not an area greatly known to the public, and was delighted to source two images that show the rural nature of this area, notably the Farm House and a view of Dormers Wells Lane.

    I think there are some rare images in the book that have never been published before, for example the picture of William Vincent Taylor’s shop in the Norwood Road, also the image showing the Rev. Broadbelt outside the King’s Hall, Southall and the picture of the grocers in Norwood Green, to name but a few.

    Hanwell & Southall Through Time Maypole Margarine Works An aerial view of the margarine works, clearly showing its good transport links and the unspoilt rural surrounds. The factory opened in 1895 and closed in 1929. It was owned by Otto Monsted Ltd, a firm of Danish origin. Note, however, the British flag flying above the works. (c. Hanwell and Southall Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    Other buildings of interest featured in the book include the Maypole Margarine Works, the largest margarine factory in Europe at the time, which opened in 1895 and closed in 1929. Also the almshouses in North Road, Southall, which were commissioned by William Welch Deloitte, who founded the famous accountancy firm.

    The most remarkable contrast in the whole book in my opinion, is the view of Leggett’s Forge, which in the book is under the heading The Broadway, Southall ll. It is difficult to equate the modern view with the tranquil scene of the old forge, at all. Equally incredible is the Hanwell scene of the Boston Road. The older scene reminds one of an image straight from the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel, and in contrast the modern view shows how the urban sprawl has entirely spoilt the countryside.

    9781445654942

    Paul Howard Lang's new book Hanwell and Southall Through Time is available for purchase now.

  • The Sixties Railway by Greg Morse

    For the public at large, ‘the Sixties’ were all about the pill, Profumo, the Beatles, the Summer of Love, student unrest, LSD and Vietnam. Though the railway was an inherent part of that society, its own list would probably include Beeching, line closures, electrification, modernisation, Inter-City and the end of steam.

    The Sixties Railway 1 Delivered to BR in 1959 and put into service on the Western and London Midland Regions over the next two years, the Blue Pullmans - though luxurious and beautiful - were also prone to poor riding at speed. (The Sixties Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    These are the markers of history, and The Sixties Railway takes a look at them all. But what was it actually like to be a passenger back then? Maybe you’d be a commuter, squeezed into a fusty carriage, bumping over the points into Liverpool Street. Maybe you’d find yourself travelling from Paddington to Bristol on the beautiful Blue Pullman, enjoying bacon and eggs as Berks became Wilts. Imagine instead catching a train from London to Glasgow. It’s a crisp January morning in 1960 and you step out of a black cab onto the cold surface of Drummond Street. You walk beneath the Doric Arch, so beloved of John Betjeman, cross the courtyard and enter the cathedral-like Great Hall. The place is packed, but once you made your way to the platforms, a smoky gloominess falls like a pall.

    On the platform, young boys note the numbers of the great locomotives – the ‘Coronations’, the ‘Scots’, the ‘Princess Royals’. You board your maroon Mark I, and make your way down the corridor, hoping for an empty compartment. Your luck’s in – at least for now – and you settle yourself, dropping the blind, turning up the heat, opening the toplight a touch. You feel warm and comfortable as you sit back in the soft, inviting upholstery.

    Departure time comes and you hear the guard’s whistle blow. The engine breathes low and the climb up Camden Bank begins...

    The Sixties Railway 2 Modernisation could mean destruction. From some, this was typified by the demolition of the Doric Arch at Euston from the end of 1961. (The Sixties Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    Within two years, the Doric Arch had been demolished; within ten steam had gone from Euston – from everywhere – and electrification meant you could travel in smooth, sleek silence from the capital to Manchester and the north-west.

    To some – like John Betjeman – the new Euston that went with the New Railway was a cold place that seemed to ignore passengers. To others – like BR itself – it was the flagship station on a flagship modern main line.

    Pulling up in a cab in 1969, you’d find yourself below ground, seeking the escalators to raise you from the exhaust fumes of the basement to the bright, airy concourse above. Your next stop is the shiny Travel Centre for a ticket, after which you glance up at the huge departures board, before heading for the Sprig Buffet. Sitting at a table, you sip at a coffee, light up another Embassy and meditate on the sculpture of Britannia that used to be in the old Great Hall. Does it make you sad? Or do you think she looks more at home here against the rich green felt?

    On the platform, boys still survey the scene, though the older ones recall the majesty of steam and can’t feel impressed by the rhythmless electrics that now hold court.

    You show your ticket and head down the concrete slope to the platform. Stepping into open-plan comfort, you find a window seat and settle down to your newspaper.

    Departure time comes and you hear the guard’s whistle blow. The locomotive wails into life and the train sails up Camden Bank. It feels like flying...

    9781445665764

    Greg Morse's new book The Sixties Railway is available for purchase now.

  • The National Bus Company by Stephen Dowle

    The National Bus Company (14) Eastern National's no. 3019 (SMS 45H), new to Alexander Midland and registered in far-off Stirling, was snapped in Chelmsford on Tuesday 15 March 1977. (c. The National Bus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    The modern bus industry is, to me, a foreign country where they do things differently. 'What on earth must it be like now?' is a question that occurs to me often as, dodging Big Issue sellers and drifting, inattentive pedestrians absorbed with their mobile phones, I observe the outlandish vehicles of today's bus operators, whose names are mostly unfamiliar to me. The vehicles themselves seem to look and sound all alike and their poor drivers, sitting in high-vis jackets behind vast expanses of windscreen glass, have a hangdog look.  I would guess that there is little of 'job satisfaction' to be had.

    The National Bus Company (133) In standard poppy red, but with mudguards in what appears to be Western Welsh's pre-NBC colour, that company's no. H1563 (904 DBO) waits at its stand in Cardiff bus station on Riday 7 January 1977. (c. The National Bus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    The modern set-up really dates from 1986, when the state-owned part of the bus industry was dismantled, deregulated and sold piecemeal into private ownership. With hindsight one can see that preparations were being made from about 1980 onwards. My knowledge of the industry is out of date but good of its period, and that watershed year of 1980 fell at precisely the mid-way point of my twenty-year stint 'on the buses' – the first six as a conductor and the remainder as a driver. Until that date, although certain innovations – notably one-man operation – had crept in, the industry was still grounded in methods that could be traced back to the very earliest years of the motor-bus. Afterwards everything changed.

    The National Bus Company (170) Standing on the setts on Saturday 14 October 1978 was Devon General's no. 1337 (JFJ 502N), a 1975 Bristol LH with Plaxton 7-foot, 6-inch body, made for sunken lanes and tours of Dartmoor. (c. The National Bus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    The National Bus Company had come into existence on 1st January 1969. It had a complicated gestation, but was essentially a merger of the Tilling and British Electric Traction groups under the Labour government of Harold Wilson and its Minister of Transport, the auburn-haired she-devil Barbara Castle. Early on there was a certain amount of 'rationalisation' and territorial redistribution as some of the lesser companies were merged and anomalous small subsidiaries were absorbed by their larger neighbours. The old company identities had disappeared as a standard livery, in its red or green variants, with a new lettering style and staff uniform had been established in the interest of 'corporate identity'. My book The National Bus Company: The Middle Years looks at the settled period that followed and takes us up to the eve of the great upheavals that followed in the first half of the eighties. These, the mature years of the NBC, afford us a poignant backwards glance at the 'old days' of the industry, or at least the state-owned part of it, when there was still a substantial amount of two-man 'crew' operation and alongside new, standardised, types – notably the Leyland National – older buses of Tilling and BET provenance were still a familiar sight. Viewed from the present day, through the wrong end of a telescope, it seems a golden age of variety and interest.

    The former Tilling fleets were overwhelmingly of Bristol-ECW manufacture; BET, largely the legatee of tram and trolleybus operators in the more urbanised parts of the country, had more varied fleets dominated by Leyland and AEC chassis. There was a score of body builders from which to choose, and operators often felt bound by a duty to patronise the local firm. The innumerable permutations of chassis, body, engine and company spec made the study of buses endlessly fascinating. Almost all these home-grown builders have disappeared in the years since and with them much of the appeal of the subject. I hope the book will provide an enjoyable nostalgia fix to those who remember the period and give younger readers a savour of that most tantalising era, the one that immediately preceded your own.

    9781445664842

    Stephen Dowle's new book The National Bus Company: The Middle Years is available for purchase now.

  • Dinky Toys by David Busfield

    Dinky Toys were amongst the first metal diecast toys to be produced in Britain. They have become synonymous with these little models, so much so that items from other manufacturers frequently get called Dinky Toys. When I was a young child I, like the majority of my friends, were totally captivated by them.

    When I was approached to write the book on Dinky Toys I was initially a little concerned that I would not be able to write the required 12,000 words that were specified. After a lot of planning I started the writing process and very quickly realised that I could have written an awful lot more.

    Dinky Toys 1 The Dinky Toys Jeep: the version on the left with the solid steering wheel is the earliest. The later version on the right has a domed bonnet. (Dinky Toys, Amberley Publishing)

    The biggest conundrum was what to include in the book and what would have to be left out. With the exception of a few years during World War II, Dinky toys were in production from 1934 to 1979, a period of approximately 40 years. I decided to concentrate on the period of production which coincided with my collecting time as a young boy; this was 1949 to the early 1960s. As a result the pre-war models and the items from the late 1960s and 1970s are covered in the book.

    Dinky Toys were manufactured by Meccano Ltd. in Binns Road, Liverpool and also by Meccano, France in Bourges. As a boy I was never aware of the very nice French range of models and I have concentrated on the British products which came from Binns Road.

    Dinky Toys 2 Four lovely American automobiles from Packard, Cadillac, Hudson and Nash. (Dinky Toys, Amberley Publishing)

    In addition to the actual models I have a sizeable collection of Meccano factory paperwork such as letters, catalogues, price lists, instruction leaflets, factory engineering drawings, dealer information sheets etc. I also have a lot of dealer trade boxes and point-of-sale material. Some of these items fall outside the scope of this book but they are a fascinating collecting area as they help to complete the Dinky story.

    This is not a book for the “rivet counter” who wants to know details of all the different castings or colour scheme variations. There is just not the room in a book of this size to do that. There are a number of internet forums which cater very well for the reader who demands more intricate information.

    My main collecting area as a child was the military vehicles and commercial vehicles, however, I have not concentrated on this, but I have attempted to cover as many areas of the Dinky range as was possible. As an example it is not widely known that Dinky made a very fine doll’s house and a range of suitable furniture in the 1930s. Sadly this was not successful and was quietly discontinued; this interesting area is covered in the book.

    It is a nice touch that the front cover features the lovely Land Rover Mersey Tunnel Police Van. Meccano Ltd. was of course based in Liverpool which makes this choice very appropriate.

    9781445665801

    David Busfield's new book Dinky Toys is available for purchase now.

  • SMJ Railway by John Evans

    To call the dear old SMJ railway ‘enigmatic’ would be rather excelling its virtues. It was created in 1908 from a jumble of lines that linked Olney, a small market town in Buckinghamshire, with Stratford-upon-Avon, a total length of just 79 miles. Its full name was the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway, a word you’ll notice, for every ten miles of its track. To say it ran from nowhere to nowhere might be stretching things a little, but you can get the measure of the operation by knowing that one of the components of this amalgamation in 1908 was called the Northampton and Banbury Junction Railway, whose rails somehow failed to reach either of these towns. Ambitiously, much of the SMJ was engineered for double track, but the huge twin-arched bridges were destined to see just one line, and a rather rusty one at that, pass beneath them.

    Last Rites 1 The huge bridge built to carry the M1 motorway over the SMJ near Roade. It was a waste of money as trains never ran beneath it. 29 April 1966. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

    Primarily it was built as part of a series of lines to transport high quality iron ore from the East Midlands to South Wales for smelting. But it was only ever a bit player in this business and the line’s historian, J.M. Dunn, once described the SMJ as a ‘poor and struggling railway' with ‘an unprosperous history.’ He added, with a nice turn of phrase, that it was a case of ‘the survival of the unfit.’

    To locals, it was known as the ‘Slow and Muddle Junction’ and regarded with some affection. After it became part of the mighty London Midland and Scottish Railway in 1923, things carried on as normal. One coach trains rumbled through delightful countryside with a handful of passengers. But the line was much more important for freight, some of them using the route to make a rather circuitous journey from Bristol to London. Of course, it couldn’t last. When British Railways was created as a new nationalised industry in 1948, someone clearly found a piece of paper at the bottom of a filing cabinet saying a bizarre little network of lines through Northamptonshire and Warwickshire existed, and decided to take a look.

    Last Rites 2 Blisworth SMJ station on 5 April 1966, with some very nice looking Northamptonshire ironstone from Blisworth quarry awaiting movement. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

    No doubt he was impressed by the relaxed way of life on the line (trains sometimes stopped so the engine crew could shoot rabbits to take home for dinner); but the fact that there were hardly any passengers may not have been quite so comforting. In 1951 and 1952 all passenger trains were withdrawn, years before Dr Beeching wielded his axe. This could have been the beginning of the end, but it was then agreed to divert some heavy freight trains along the western section of the route, and the SMJ enjoyed something of an Indian summer. Alas, it was not to last. The freight trains were sent elsewhere, the little ironstone quarries that provided business for the route closed and by the end of the sixties, the SMJ was but a fast-fading memory.

    Today you see its scar across the countryside, but as bridges are removed, farmers get to work ploughing and towns and villages undergo development the trail of the SMJ is looking very thin indeed. Just old goods shed here and there – an odd bridge appearing to stand in a field and some neat little houses in Blisworth labelled ‘SMJ’ (built for local employees) are among the more significant remains.

    Last Rites 3 Kineton Ministry of Defence depot on 23 June 1966, scene of our arrest while walking the SMJ. Who said being a railway enthusiast was boring? A small mishap is being cleared up. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

    Its memory is treasured, however, in lots of ways. For a start there is a society devoted to it. There are also lots of photographs. A friend, Bryan Jeyes, and myself, added to the stock of pictures in the mid-1960s when we walked the whole of the route, taking colour photos. (We also managed to get arrested at Kineton Ministry of Defence camp, which backs on to the railway, a story related in my Amberley book, Last Rites).  But apart from this bit of fun, we can proudly claim to be the last people to travel over the whole of the SMJ, even if it was on foot and not as the line’s founders intended.

    Much more exciting is the news that Towcester Museum, situated in a Northamptonshire town that was a major junction on the route, is to hold an exhibition for six months starting in late August. They have gathered together old signs, artefacts, photos, memorabilia and other reminders of the line, to mark 150 years since the first section, from Blisworth to Towcester, opened. There are many new folk living in the town whom will no doubt discover for the first time that their community once boasted a rather impressive railway station, right where Tesco now have a supermarket.

    To those of us who are old enough to recall the SMJ in action, the most significant – and apposite – survivor is the old station at Stoke Bruerne. True to form, this is nowhere near the village it purported to serve. It was opened in December 1892, one of two massively-built stations on the section from Towcester to Olney. Business wasn’t good, however, and just four months later the passenger service was withdrawn, never to be restored. Some trains had no passengers at all.

    Still, it has made a very fine house for many years and no doubt will continue to do so.

    9781445655024 9781445654980

    John Evans books Workhorses of the Big Four and Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard and available for purchase now.

  • Pirates: Truth and Tale by Helen Hollick

    Pirates. The word conjures a promise of exciting adventure, Caribbean islands, hot sun, blue sea, the Jolly Roger flag, a parrot or two, chests of treasure and a chap with a wooden leg, a patch over one eye and a gold hoop in his ear. Go on, admit it, you were tempted to utter a resounding ‘Arrr!’ weren’t you?

    The truth is, the pirates of the Golden Age, the early 1700s, were very far from our romantic Hollywood image. The truth of piracy is very far from the fictional tales.

    Pirates B) canstockphoto3695931 The common perception of a pirate. (c. jgroup, Pirates: Truth and Tale, Amberley Publishing)

    When Amberley approached me to write a book about pirates I was initially inclined to say no. There are dozens of books and internet blogs about pirates. What could I write that was different? Then I had an idea. I could look at pirates from the factual and the fictional side. I knew many facts because I write my own fictional series about a pirate, written for adults with a lot of swashbuckling adventure and a touch of fantasy (think Pirates of the Caribbean, Hornblower, Sharpe, James Bond and Indiana Jones all rolled into one). Would it be fun to explore these two different angles, using known characters such as Blackbeard, Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny alongside Errol Flynn, Jack Sparrow and Captain Hook, as well as my own creation of Captain Jesamiah Acorne?

    As a writer, once the idea had been conceived I just had to follow it through. The result is Pirates: Truth and Tales.

    Pirates were sea-based robbers, terrorists of the seas. Unkempt, untrustworthy rogues, with most of them ending up on the gallows. Most were originally sailors, either merchant seamen or Royal Navy. Some became pirates because other pirates attacked their ships and forced their victims to join them – especially those with a skill such as carpentry, navigation or best of all, medical knowledge. A surgeon was an enormous prize. Others turned to piracy out of desperation to survive, a wish to get rich quick, or because of plain boredom. One pirate, however, bought a ship, gathered a crew and went off ‘On the Account’ for no other reason than to escape his nagging wife. His name was Stede Bonnet, and he ended up dancing the hempen jig on the gallows. Divorce would have been easier.

    The word pirate comes from the Greek verb, peiran, which means to attack. In Ancient Greek culture pirates were looked upon as heroes, on a par with warriors. By Roman times they were less tolerated, and come the 15-1600s were either encouraged or loathed depending which country you were from and which war was being fought at the time.

    Pirates Map-Sea-Witch3-finalPrivateering was nothing more than legal piracy, but government and monarch sponsored. It all started with Sir Francis Drake and the war between England and Spain. There was nothing wrong, so thought Elizabeth I, with plundering Spanish ships. By the mid-to-late 1600s doing so was actively encouraged because Spain was still the enemy and Spanish galleons were carrying vast amounts of treasure from the Americas back home to Cádiz. That is, if they were not intercepted by the likes of Captain Henry Morgan (he of the rum-brand fame). But when a treaty of peace was signed, vessels were left to rot while sailors kicked their heels in various ports with nothing to do except drink and find ‘entertainment’ with the ladies.

    And then a Spanish treasure fleet was destroyed by a hurricane. At least eleven ships went down just off the coast of Florida, hundreds of men were drowned and the Spanish had a mad scramble to salvage what they could. As did dozens of others who realised there were easy pickings to be found in the shallows. The 1700s equivalent of a lottery win.

     

    Pirates ship A pirate's most important asset: his ship. The Lady Washington, better known as HMS Interceptor in the movie Pirates of the Carriddean: Curse of the Black Pearl. (c. Ifistand, Pirates: Truth and Tale, Amberley Publishing)

    The Caribbean trade routes were just starting to flourish. Tobacco, sugar cane and its by-product of rum had to be shipped from the American colonies to England. With little to no defence the ships were easy prey. By 1717 the rich merchants back in England were beginning to feel the pinch, and piracy had to be stopped. The law cracked down, all pirates were to be hanged if caught, and Woodes Rogers, a noted privateer in his own right was sent to be Governor of the Bahamas, based in the pirate haven of Nassau. Using his wits he offered a King’s Amnesty, which most pirates took, and adhered to. Those who did not, Charles Vane, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Jack Rackham, Edward Low and a few other notables, thumbed their noses and returned to the sea. By 1720 they, and most of the well-known ones, were dead.

    The movies, TV shows, fiction, all depict pirates as heroes, charmers with a touch of redeemable rogue about them. Handsome eye-candy usually with an eye to a wench with a well-endowed chest rather than to a chest of gold. Remember Pugwash, the bumbling cartoon character of children’s TV? What of Hook in Peter Pan, a pirate indeed, but a gentleman character who went to Eton and spoke of ‘good form’. Then there’s Jack Sparrow – oh we all fell for Johnny Depp’s inspired character didn’t we? Although only the first movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl was good; two, three and four in the series were not. I await to make an opinion on the fifth, due out this summer 2017.

    The adventurous tales of derring-do far outweigh the truth. Frenchman’s Creek, Treasure Island, my own Sea Witch Voyages are popular entertainment reading. The romantic idyll of life at sea, a cool breeze blowing in the rigging, the crack of sails, the gurgle of the sea rushing past the hull – the occasional firing of a couple of cannons or making some innocent walk the plank all adds to the adventure. Would we be so keen, though, with the reality of weevil-ridden rancid food, scummy green drinking water, no medicines or medical supplies, no sanitation, no clean clothes – no clean bodies, and the daily threat of the noose to end it all?

    No thanks, I’ll stick with my Jesamiah Acorne and that Sparrer’ feller if you don’t mind! (for more information check out my author community page for my social media links.)

    9781445652153

    Helen Hollick's new book Pirates: Truth and Tale is available for purchase now.

  • The Princess's Garden by Vanessa Berridge

    I have just started on my second book for Amberley Publishing on the lives of Great British Gardeners. I will begin in the late sixteenth century with the herbalist John Gerard and come up to the present day, probably finishing with handsome Chelsea superstar Tom Stuart-Smith.

    The British have always been a nation of gardeners and exploring the lives of some twenty-five or more Britain’s greatest exponents is a good way of understanding this island’s history. For gardeners and gardening have always responded to and symbolised political and social upheavals in Britain down the centuries. Take, for instance, early gardeners John Gerard and the John Tradescants, father and son. They were men of their time, investing in colonial adventures, and indeed all travelled far afield as few members of their class would have done before the late sixteenth century. Interestingly, gardeners from the Tradescants’ time onwards have been accorded enhanced social status, with an eighteenth century gardener such as ‘Capability’ Brown dining regularly with dukes and sending his sons to Eton.

    The Princess's Garden 1 Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales by Allan Ramsay (1758). (© Bute Collection@ Mount Stuart, The Princess's Garden, Amberley Publishing)

    This is partly because of the unique symbolic role that gardening has played in British history. This symbolism, perhaps, reached its zenith in the eighteenth century, and is the subject of The Princess’s Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew, my first book for Amberley, recently reissued in paperback. Kew was founded in 1759 by Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales; the princess of the title. When the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew was opened by Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1987, few people realised that it had been named not for Diana but for her rather less high profile predecessor. I wanted to find out why Augusta, her husband Frederick, Prince of Wales, and her botanical advisor John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, had been all but air-brushed out of history. As I researched the book I uncovered a colourful story of dissension in the royal family, and of kidnapping, dramatic childbirth, sibling rivalry, and adultery.

    So my book recounts the turbulent political and personal background to the founding of Kew Gardens in 1759, revealing the discord at the heart of the royal family. It also shows how gardening in the eighteenth century was highly political. What, you may ask, has gardening to do with politics? At that time – to adapt the feminist catch phrase of the 1960s and 1970s – the horticultural was the political. The gardens of the aristocracy – Stourhead, Blenheim, Houghton and Stowe – were all used to display political affiliation. The royal gardens at Richmond and later at Kew were also manipulated to put forward the regal and princely points of view.

    Augusta of Saxe-Gotha arrived in England, aged just seventeen, to marry Frederick, Prince of Wales, the elder son of George II and his intellectual wife, Caroline of Ansbach.  Detested by his parents, and indeed eventually exiled from court, this slightly wayward young man had to make his own way in life. He was befriended by Lord Cobham, the leader of the Whig opposition to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. There was no love lost between Frederick and Walpole, ally of Queen Caroline, so with the rogue Whigs looking for a figurehead and Frederick seeking a role, it was a political marriage made in heaven.

    The Princess's Garden 2 View from the Portico of Stowe House to the Park by Jacques Rigaud. (By kind permission of Stowe House Preservation Trust/Stowe School), The Princess's Garden, Amberley Publishing)

    Cobham was the creator of the pre-eminent political garden at Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, where he set out his agenda as a Whig leader. Britain had only been a nation since 1707, with the Act of Union in the year of Frederick’s birth. The early eighteenth-century landscape movement was a means of articulating on the land the political voice of the ascendant Whig aristocracy, engineers of the Hanoverian succession. At Stowe, a series of talented garden designers laid out the ground and constructed temples of follies which embodied Cobham’s political creed. The grounds were meant to be seen by the public; indeed, in 1717, Cobham opened the first ever visitor centre at the New Inn by the gate to Stowe.

    Influenced by this powerful aristocrat, Frederick began working on his gardens, first at Carlton House and subsequently, as he prepared for kingship, on his garden at Kew, expecting his noble advisers to lend a hand. He led fashion, as a letter from 1734 reveals: ‘There is a new taste in gardening just arisen, which has been practised with so great success at the Prince’s garden in Town that a general alteration of some of the most considerable gardens in the kingdom is begun.’

    The Princess's Garden 3 The White House, Kew by Johan Jacob Schalch (c.1760). (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015, The Princess's Garden, Amberley Publishing)

    But his lasting memorial is not Carlton House, which was razed to the ground by his grandson, George IV, but the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Frederick died in 1751, before he could inherit the throne, and before he completed his plans. But Augusta took up his spade, declaring herself determined to make a garden which would ‘contain all the plants known on Earth’.  Implicit in this aim was an awareness of the economic potential of plants as Britain developed into a world trading power, forged through commercial muscle. Augusta’s vision for her garden was innovative, combining for the first time the landscape and the botanic in one garden – and eventually eclipsing Stowe which was much more revered in the eighteenth century. Kew is a research institution of international importance, and since 2003, a World Heritage Site, whereas Stowe is a museum to the values of the eighteenth century, which needs interpretation boards at every point.

    It’s an intriguing chapter in British history, which shows how gardens helped Britain, by then a constitutional monarchy, to create a distinctive new culture for itself. At every stage of our history, our gardens have represented major social and political trends – look at the Eden Project, or indeed the new Hive at Kew, which is invested with important ecological messages in the early twenty-first century.

    It is stories like these that I hope to tease out as I research the lives of some of our Great British Gardeners.

    Augusta, Princess of Wales, will be one of the stars of an important exhibition this summer and autumn at Kensington Palace in London. Enlightenment Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Making of the Modern World highlights three overlooked Hanoverian consorts and charts their major contribution to British cultural life in the eighteenth-century.  The exhibition runs from 22 June to 12 November.

    9781445660295

    Vanessa Berridge's new paperback edition of The Princess's Garden: Royal Intrigue and the Untold Story of Kew is available for purchase now.

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